Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Thursday likened the threat posed by foreign hackers to “modern-day, 21st century nuclear weapons" and pledged to use diplomacy to avert cyber attacks against the nation’s power grid, transportation system and financial networks.
“Every day while we sit here right now certain countries are attacking our systems,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing for the post of Secretary of State. “They are trying to hack into classified information to various agencies of our government."
He added: "It's threatening to our power grid, it's threatening to our communications and it's threatening to our capacity to respond, and there are people out there who know it."
Kerry’s comments reflect the growing concern in Washington that hackers from other countries could pose national security risks equivalent to terrorism. Last fall, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the United States was facing the possibility of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” in which foreign hackers could derail passenger trains, contaminate the water supply or shut down the power grid with the click of a mouse.
Experts have identified China, Russia and Iran as countries with the hacking skills to threaten national security. Most recently, U.S. officials have attributed a wave of cyber attacks against American banks to hackers in Iran, though they have offered little evidence to support their claims.
During his confirmation hearing, Kerry did not single out specific countries, but said there “are some countries we are currently engaged with” that have a “very good understanding of this power and are pursuing it.”
"It's the modern day, 21st century nuclear weapons equivalent," Kerry said of cyber threats. "We’re going to have to engage in cyber diplomacy and cyber negotiations and try to establish rules of the road that help us cope with this challenge."
Kerry’s comments before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came in response to a question from Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) who asked how, as secretary of state, Kerry would handle negotiations in a “war involving the invisible workings of computers.”
Durbin said people who are “not our friends” are “trying to invade our infrastructure and invade our technology and do great harm to us, not just in economic terms but in terms of human life.”
Cyber attacks, Durbin said, are "the most serious threat facing us today."
Last year, Congress introduced legislation to secure critical infrastructure -- the power grid, the banking industry and water treatment plants -- from cyber attacks. But the bill failed to pass after Senate Republicans sided with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and said the measures would be too costly for corporations.
However, President Obama is expected to issue an executive order early this year to enact some of the bill’s key measures.